In a surprise move, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) on Thursday stepped aside from the investigation into Russia’s interference in the presidential election.
Nunes said that he was relinquishing control, at least temporarily, because of complaints filed against him with the Office of Congressional Ethics that he said were brought by “several leftwing activist groups.” Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX), the second-ranking Republican on the committee, will take over until the OCE’s ethics review is complete, with support from Reps. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) and Tom Rooney (R-FL).
“The charges are entirely false and politically motivated, and are being leveled just as the American people are beginning to learn the truth about the improper unmasking of the identities of U.S. citizens and other abuses of power,” Nunes said in a statement.
“I will continue to fulfill all my other responsibilities as Committee Chairman,” he said, “and I am requesting to speak to the Ethics Committee at the earliest possible opportunity in order to expedite the dismissal of these false claims.”
Democracy 21 and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, two progressive watchdog groups, wrote to the OCE on March 28 with concerns that Nunes disclosed “classified information to the public” in violation of House ethics rules. The House Committee on Ethics confirmed Thursday that they are investigating those allegations.
Calls for Nunes to relinquish control of the probe escalated in recent weeks over his cozy relationship the Trump White House. His committee is also investigating potential ties between Trump staffers and Russian operatives.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the committee who had called for Nunes’ recusal, said that the chairman’s decision was made “in the best interests of the committee.”
“The important work of investigating the Russian involvement in our election never subsided, but we have a fresh opportunity to move forward in the unified and nonpartisan way that an investigation of this seriousness demands,” Schiff said in a statement.
The President and Republican leadership have stood behind the California lawmaker. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) said in a statement that Nunes continues to have his “trust,” but that it would be a “distraction” to keep him on the Russia investigation.
“It is clear that this process would be a distraction for the House intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian interference in our election,” Ryan said. “Chairman Nunes has offered to step aside as the lead Republican on this probe, and I fully support this decision.”
Asked during a Thursday morning press conference if he thought Nunes shared classified information, Ryan said, “No, I don’t believe so.”
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer offered few words on his decision to step aside.
“I’m not going to comment on decisions that the House makes on its committee chairman or their activities that’s up to them,” Spicer said.
Nunes publicly claimed that Obama administration officials requested the unmasking of Trump transition staffers who were caught up in surveillance of foreign nationals. Multiple reports, citing anonymous U.S. officials, later said that his source for this information came from the White House.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, told reporters that this sullied the credibility of the investigation.
“No matter how you look at it, there was some deceptive activity so I don’t think you can have somebody at the head of that dealing with an issue this important and it not be beneficial that he step back,” he said.
Read Nunes’ full statement below:
“Several leftwing activist groups have filed accusations against me with the Office of Congressional Ethics. The charges are entirely false and politically motivated, and are being leveled just as the American people are beginning to learn the truth about the improper unmasking of the identities of U.S. citizens and other abuses of power. Despite the baselessness of the charges, I believe it is in the best interests of the House Intelligence Committee and the Congress for me to have Representative Mike Conaway, with assistance from Representatives Trey Gowdy and Tom Rooney, temporarily take charge of the Committee’s Russia investigation while the House Ethics Committee looks into this matter. I will continue to fulfill all my other responsibilities as Committee Chairman, and I am requesting to speak to the Ethics Committee at the earliest possible opportunity in order to expedite the dismissal of these false claims.”